Debate: ‘I Too Am Oxford’ and ‘We Are All Oxford’

Tyler Alabanza-Behard, former Chair of OUSU’s Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality, writing in favour of “I, Too, am Oxford”

Outside of the University community, it is a show of solidarity to our brothers and sisters at Harvard College; on our own shores, it offers encouragement to students of colour at both Cambridge and SOAS, who have since published their own versions.  Within Oxford, the campaign provides a rare safe space for BME students to share incidents of racism and insensitivity. Looking at the images, one glimpses at the lived experience; the narrative untold when we smile politely for prospectus photos. With its twin focus also on the affirmation of racial identity, the campaign asserts the message that though we, as students of colour, are insufficiently represented at Oxford, this is our home too, and we deserve to be seen and heard. At a university like our own, this is not a moment that comes along often, and therefore the organisers of “I, Too, Am Oxford” (ITAO) deserve tremendous credit. 

Yet it is when we consider the unique beauty of ITAO that we unveil the haphazard ugliness of ‘We Are All Oxford’ (WAAO).  Though WAAO ‘aims’ not to ‘work against’ ITAO – because of their shared form and similar titles, the two exist in direct dialogue. However the dialogue instigated by WAAO is neither appropriate nor meaningful. Instead of truly engaging with the crucial issues raised by ITAO, the counter-campaign hijacks a conversation about race and seeks to assuage its message by trumpeting supposedly-impressive access statistics. Beyond this, WAAO embarrasses itself with its lack of diversity. Even if it may have good ‘intentions’, it has the effect and impact impact of white folks commandeering or even rewriting the expressive power of ITAO. A legitimate counter-campaign, on the other hand, would have ensured that the diversity of its participants matched that of ITAO. 

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With its saccharine, Helen Lovejoy logic (“think of the children!’’), WAAO also patronises the prospective applicants for whom it is intended. It fears that ITAO will ‘discourage’ BME students from applying, but that’s not an argument I can at all purchase. Many race and privilege conscious applicants will in fact be inspired by the work of ITAO; check Black Twitter if you want proof. In its existence, ITAO makes visible that there are a large number of students who are not only committed to addressing racism, but are also unafraid to hold the University to account in the process. For the many young adults already engaged in social justice work pre-university, ITAO advertises Oxford as a place where students of colour – underrepresented though we may be – actively push back against institutional inequality.  And that’s a good thing. 

Alexandra Wilson, Organizer of “We Are All Oxford”

We decided to respond to the ‘I, Too, Am Oxford’ campaign because we feel that the University of Oxford has been misrepresented in the media. Our main concern is that the campaign’s negative portrayal of an ethnic minority student’s experience at the university will discourage prospective ethnic minority students from applying. One of the ways in which we can combat individuals’ misguided perceptions is by improving access for ethnic minorities, something we feel the University of Oxford tries to do.

However, a campaign only highlighting the negative experiences of BME students has the potential to deter people from applying. We all agree that the ‘I, Too, Am Oxford’ campaign brought up some very serious issues that do need to be voiced and challenged. None of us believe that racism should ever be tolerated. We would like to emphasise that we do not aim to undermine the original campaign and we are not working against them. We acknowledge that racism exists at the University of Oxford and it needs to be challenged, but we believe that the university is working hard to tackle these prejudices and misguided perceptions.

Our aim is to present the full picture. In response to criticism of our campaign as ‘diluting’ the original message we would like to clarify that we all fully support the original intentions of ‘I Too Am Oxford’. It is important that people feel able to voice their negative experiences and there are many ways this can be achieved within the university, as well as externally through the media – as the campaign chose to do. Many of the people who have taken part in the ‘We Are All Oxford’ response have been subject to racial abuse (including myself). We just want people to recognize that Oxford does not encourage or tolerate it, and this type of ignorance is not representative of the institution. Unfortunately, we will find racism across England and we all agree that we need to challenge the offenders.

However, we believe that it is important for us to emphasise that it is ignorant individuals at the university rather than the university culture. Racism is not more prevalent at the University of Oxford than elsewhere and the university is working hard to actively tackle it. We do not want to dilute the message that racism is a problem that needs to be voiced and challenged. However, we do want to emphasise that the majority of ethnic minority students studying here will not be consistently made to feel ‘different and othered’.